Friday, May 28, 2010

The Apple

Cannon Films, run by Israeli entrepreneurs Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, pretty much captured the zeitgeist of the '80s. Their low budget films revolving around ninjas defined a decade that is now forever associated with ninjas, low budget, and video games. However, Cannon was hardly consistent, or good, and they had this strange obsession with musicals that they could never shake, which resulted in the modern classic Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (which I actually own, because it was $5 and I could say I owned Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo on DVD for that low, low price). This odd love of musicals resulted in The Apple, today's subject.

I've heard the Apple described as a completely insane disco musical that failed spectacularly. That might be overselling it a bit, but it is a disco musical that is also influenced by equal parts Fahrenheit 451 and the Bible (hence the Apple of the title), with an ending that comes completely out of left field. It is certainly strange, but I'm not sure if it's strange enough, to capture that sense of batshit insanity that a truly nuts film has to do.

It's 1994, and the World Vision Song Contest - It's supposed to be like Eurovision (which is going on right now!) except in the world, though it shares a name with a charity. In this 1994, a big media corporation called Bim controls the world, run by Mr. Boogalow (I wonder why Golan and Globus love that word so much). Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal, hamming it up) is the devil, quite literally, and runs the world with money and sellout disco music. But, from out of nowhere comes two plucky young kids from Moose Jaw (a running joke which is naturally annoying to me, being from Saskatchewan and all) who capture hearts with a sappy love song that is also not very good, but pure. Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Alfie (George Gilmour, with a distinctly non-Moose Jaw accent) are subsequently invited to make deals with the devil, becoming a super famous pop star like Lady Gaga and a hippie bum respectively.

Possibly the most interesting thing is the depiction of 1994, which actually manages to get some things right, even way back in 1980. Okay, nobody listened to disco, but people did wear lots of neon pink, and to get one detail right in these supposed futures is always impressive. Hell, look at the list of product placement in 2001 that showed mostly businesses which no longer existed in 2001. Naturally, some things didn't pan out. The 1970s mustache died an ignoble death, and for some reason glittery gold speedos never caught on - given the sheer number of glittery speedos captured on film, one wondered if Golan and Globus had stock in a company that made them - but hey, neon, we sure wore that.

The Apple does have some fairly astonishing scenes, like when an older pop star (in a silver speedo) convinces the female lead to both eat the Apple and that it's a natural, natural desire to meet and actual, actual vampire. There's also an amazing sequence when Alfie trips balls at an orgy and we are treated to the underwear kama sutra with men in golden speedos and women in nighties while we're treated to a surprisingly explicit song about seduction. The ending, which does not make sense in any context, is also worth noting, though I suspect that it was a focus group thing and the original ending was much more grim.

There is a problem with the Apple though, and that's that it tries to have it both ways. It decries the sell out nature of disco music while packing the soundtrack with disco hits. It decries the status of entertainment and has a corporate run state, but doesn't do anything with them. It reaches out to dirty hippies without having a single song that a dirty hippy could "dig". It seems like it wants to convert its audience away from disco, which is sort of noble, though in 1980 people were naturally moving away from disco anyway, possibly because it sucked.

It's hard to say that the Apple is worth watching, but it is fairly memorable when it hits its insane highs. Golan, who also directed, soon realized his true calling, which involved breakdancing and ninjas (and ruining Superman) but in this, the most nonsensical of musicals, he decided to get personal, and state what was wrong with music and the world. The strange thing is, he was sort of right - the story of Bibi doing a complete image shift from singer songwriter to vapid disco queen bears a striking resemblance to Lady GaGa's rise to fame - he just expressed it in the most bizarre way possible.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Public Enemy

Sequels are always tricky. On one hand, you've got to give people what they liked from the first film, but on the other hand you have to give them something else. It could be going bigger, with flashier special effects, action sequences, and just more in general. It could be a change in direction, with taking care to bring insight into characters that might not have been obvious before. As a fan of Public Enemy, the Korean action dark comedy, I was excited to see what would happen with Another Public Enemy. It takes an approach I'm not sure I approve of, it makes it respectable.

So Kyung-gu Sol is back as Gang - or Kang, in these subtitles - being promoted from inspector to prosecutor. He is, again, confronted with a rich man who believes he is above the law - Han, played by Jun-ho Jeong - though he is a bit less brutal with his murdering, and is mostly involved with a complicated money laundering scheme. In the new film, we see Kang have a newfound respect for the law and due process - though not so much respect that he doesn't step outside it frequently, especially at the end. As a result, he's a bit more respectable, but less funny and interesting, and less compelling to watch. The old crew is back, but they're not up to their old antics.

It's a case where I might actually have a different opinion if it weren't the sequel. The political maneuvering as Han tries to get people off the case is interesting, though he's a less interesting character than he might be. The attempt to sell off property in order to get rich in America is a lot less sinister than it might be, and Han just isn't that compelling of a character, being a one note bad guy overall.

Unfortunately, with the dialed up respectability the action is dialed way down, with the majority of the maneuvering taking place in offices as people talk politics. It's actually not a bad premise overall, but I felt disappointed by it, as it trades the original film's tension and intrigue with much less tense and much less intriguing moments.

Another Public Enemy isn't bad, per se, but I couldn't help but think that it had been neutered. It doesn't have the teeth it once did, and making Kang respectable makes his character less interesting overall. It makes me think that maybe sequels generally aren't a good thing, because you can't have the same thing twice, but if you deviate too far it ends up being a disappointment. Perhaps Public Enemy should have been left alone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Immortal Enemy

I didn't realize it at the time, but this week has become a theme week! Aren't you excited? Yep, both features feature ghosts, though the quality of the two entries varies pretty dramatically. Since you already know that the last MaR entry was something good, you can likely assume that this week's is going to be bad. Calling Immortal Enemy bad seems a bit unfair, but it most certainly isn't good.

Due to bad subtitles disagreeing with the IMDB and with, um, themselves, I have no idea who plays anyone. Not that their performances stand out, but if you just have to know the minor roles of Thai people in silly films you're going to be disappointed. Anyway, the film starts in the past, as some douchebag decides that he really wants to marry a woman who may or may not be named Bonnie. Unfortunately she is married to Don, so he does what any sane and rational man would do, and that's kill Don's family and tear Bonnie's face off. No, wait, sane and rational are the opposite of the words I was thinking of, never mind then. In the process, he also drinks some foamy eternal life potion, and makes an aquarium implode, not exactly sure how that works but whatever.

Then we go into the present day, where worst boyfriend ever Eddie or Ned - Neddie? -takes his girlfriend Elly, or Cherry, depending on the scene - for convenience, I will call her Chelly - to the basement of his new (haunted) house, which is filled with scary mice, snakes and cockroaches. Then, apparently off screen, he becomes best friends with senior Douchebag, who is a ghost, and also a vampire. He goes around killing people and doing vampire things. Don and Bonnie are also reincarnated as Willy and Lorna/Ellen respectively (Lorlen?) who have to beat the vampire through a magical incantation or something. Also, nobody questions that, for Thai people living in Thailand, everyone has western names, which change constantly, making everything obnoxiously hard to follow.

Okay, one of the main faults - astonishingly bad subtitles - might be part of the reason for one of the other main faults - this movie makes no goddamn sense. There are nuggets of an interesting idea - something about reincarnated people living out their past lives again could be pretty cool if properly handled - but there are also mysterious ghost hunters, vampires who are also ghosts who are also perfectly fine on a sunny day, everyone's name changing by the minute, and it never being completely clear who represents what and how.

What it feels like is a situation where someone made a list of all the scenes they want in a movie - sex! action! snakes! comedy! someone getting their face ripped off! - and then just tried to construct a narrative around it. That's the only explanation for the plot, which goes off the rails completely in the first 10 minutes and then bounces merrily through the field of incoherence.

I actually don't always hate a movie that makes no sense, provided it's done with style, but that's another area where Immortal Enemy doesn't work. It makes heavy use of bad handheld, as though it's not confident enough in its own stunts, and the special effects aren't even trying half the time. It looks like what it is, an amateurish mess. Sometimes that can work, sometimes it can even get a cult following, but here, it's just a bizarre ramble, and for the biggest crime of all, it's a midnight movie that doesn't make incompetence fun.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Devil's Backbone

You know what's exciting? Good movies! A film which has imagery that sticks with you, genuine tension, a densely packed narrative that never feels over-stuffed, good performances and direction. Impressive for the era special effects that may have aged a bit badly, but are used in full recognition of this fact and just amp the tension by being mostly hidden. It feels like a long time since I've seen a movie that I've regarded as genuinely amazing - Bonnie And Clyde maybe - but finally, here's a picture that I think is among the best you can get. The Devil's Backbone is finally a film everyone should see.

Guillermo Del Toro describes this as the brother of his highly acclaimed and highly amazing - and fairly depressing - film Pan's Labyrinth, albeit from a few years before. This is an apt description, though it's hardly saying that the films are identical. Like siblings, you can tell that they come from roughly the same place, and if you didn't know who Del Toro was you could probably understand that he did both.

Like the later film, this is a personal story, using history and the supernatural as texture. Fernando Tielve is Carlos, a young kid whose parents were killed in the Spanish Civil War. He is sent to an orphanage, which is giving support to one side, and is haunted by ghost of a recently killed kid, with an undetonated bomb in the middle of the street. An extremely dense narrative spools out around the kid, as he is caught in the problems of adults which he cannot hope to understand.

One of the keys here is that there is a lot of tension, and as the film goes on it becomes clear that it's not a safe world that the characters inhabit. As a result, the tension becomes increasingly real, as even if it goes towards a karmically appropriate ending for the most villainous, it might not necessarily head towards a happy one. Tension is created because you begin to like the characters, but also know that nobody is safe in the world they inhabit.

It's also amazingly well acted, especially considering the sheer number of child actors on set. The adults have a great emotional depth as well - Federico Luppi as the kindly old man Dr. Casares needs to be singled out for his masterfully controlled performance, as he commands the screen and your respect even when he does nothing at all - and the performances are all as complex as the film itself is.

This is an astonishingly good movie, an example of what can happen when everyone involve gives some of their best work. It's classified as a horror movie, but it's got more depth than that simple description can provide. It is, more than anything else, about understanding, both the world around you and your own actions. Del Toro is one of the rare directors who can create spectacle, horror and action, but consistently have his characters be more memorable than the most elaborate set pieces he can devise. This is, finally, a movie everyone should see.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bagdad Cafe

The death of any film is when you have to ask if it's supposed to be funny. It's not a problem with comedies exclusively, if you find yourself confused about whether the director or writer, or writer/director in the case of Bagdad Cafe, intended for a scene to be comedic or not, it signifies that the film has failed. This is not to say that something has to telegraph it's intentions, or that even the same reaction has to be felt by every viewer, but that when you start questioning what you're supposed to get out of the picture, it takes you out of the action and makes it increasingly difficult to keep caring about what is happening in the film.

There are many moments in Bagdad Cafe where you wonder whether or not something is supposed to be funny. It starts from the first scene, where magical German lady Jasmine (Marianne Sägebrecht) breaks up with her remarkably sweaty husband (Hans Stadlbauer). The scene is edited in a frantic, slapstick way, suggesting I should be amused by it, but I was just annoyed by how poorly edited the whole thing was, and the camera angles which were completely bizarre. I wondered if I was supposed to be laughing, but the scene was more annoying than hilarious.

The film itself, about what happens when Jasmine finds her way into a remote gas station and warms the heart of shout-y angry owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) and her family, and causes Rudi Cox (Jack Palance, classing up the joint) to fall in love. At first everyone's angry and sad all the time, and then they suddenly warm to her and things become happier. It's fun, or it's supposed to be I'm assuming.

It's odd, because there are a few scenes in the film where it sort of works as a nice, unassuming slice of life film, following a few well meaning people as they begin to warm to each other. For the rest of it, I can see it trying to be funny, or at least amusing, but the entire thing falls flat and doesn't work properly. There are these odd sort-of running jokes that don't go anywhere (Germans like their coffee strong!) and some of the interactions seem like they're trying to be wacky but aren't somehow.

The only really remarkable thing it does is reverse the tired "magical black man" cliche by making it a magical white woman, teaching a bunch of black people to love each other and put on a magic show in a remote diner. That hurts it too, since it causes the character of Brenda to be introduced as abrasive for no good reason before she's best friends with the German lady. The pre- and post-Jasmine character transformations are fairly abrupt and unnatural, and Brenda has no reason to be a suspicious dick for the majority of the picture. Hell, the only reason given is that Germans are weird, they wear lederhosen! Better watch out for the Germans! (This is also used for some really limp drama and a real groaner of a line later on).

I didn't completely hate the film, some sequences were nice and there's a song which plays throughout which is sort of appealing in an '80s ballad kind of way. The problem is that it takes more than being nice, you've got to get people to care and be absorbed by the picture. I knew from the moment I asked whether or not it was supposed to be funny, I wouldn't be.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Today's movie is Angel, but it's pretty awful so I don't want to talk about it. In short, it's badly shot, badly acted, badly written, and the only reason it was even on DVD is because it's about two gay guys.

That's what I want to talk about, the crap except there's some gay dudes problem. The DVD itself? It's filled with trailers for similarly just awful looking movies which try to sell themselves based on the fact that there are two men in the lead roles. They're irredeemable rubbish, sure, but hey look gay guys, you don't get to see gay guys in movies very often! Look, these guys are gay, just like you, they even have vague gay problems that could be easily substituted with a vague not-gay problem except then we couldn't base the entire production and marketing around the whole gay thing.

This is not to say that there aren't very good movies about gay people, there are many. Thing is, they're generally made by people who are just good at movies, full stop, and they aren't using homosexuality as a crutch to get attention. They can also take a situation that is not universal and make it sympathetic and understandable to an audience which doesn't share it. Brokeback Mountain, for an award-winning example, connects with people because it is an understandable, tragic love story. The main characters being men is important, but the emotions themselves are universal.

The problem with crap like this is that it isn't well written enough to be universal, isn't acted well enough for people to connect, and just plain isn't good enough to matter to anyone who isn't searching desperately for a movie about gay men (which I'm not). A good movie can be about just about anything, if it makes it compelling. A bad one often finds a gimmick and uses it as a crutch. Apparently there's an entire label dedicated to that, it's kind of sad.

Here's a last comment about the film itself: I knew the one character was bad because I read Mark Trail.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Middle of the World

I believe I've said many times before that I have never seen a bad Brazilian movie. I'm not sure if it was luck, a deep pool of talent, or just good selection for the films that leave the country, but I've been impressed by pretty much the entirety of their cinematic output until now. So, I'm not sure if I should be thrilled or disappointed that, for the first time ever, I've seen a Brazilian movie that I can't get behind, one I dare say is even, well, bad. The Middle of the World is a film I knew had to exist, being that no country is perfect, and even the best directors in the world have laid down some true stinkers in their time.

Immediately, however, I'm going to lessen the impact by saying that there are some very good things about this piece. It's beautifully shot, which makes me wonder if Brazil is somehow just really kind to film cameras and it's impossible to shoot a film badly there. The soundtrack is also excellent, and I was tempted to seek out several songs on it for my personal collection. There are good things here in both visuals and audio.

Given that it's a pretty film, it's clear that the problem has to be of a script based nature. The story, of a family bicycling across Brazil so the father of the household - or bikehold? - can find a job suitable for supporting them isn't necessarily bad on paper. In the mix is a bit of light teenage rebellion on the part of Antonio (Ravi Ramos Lacerda), who is discovering girls and that his father (Wagner Moura) is kind of an idiot - more on that later - and that he is finally blossoming into a real man, which is partially told through his ease of smoking cigarettes, which might make anti-tobacco activists rather unhappy. Also in the mix is Rose (Cláudia Abreu), who manages to bicycle, raise five kids and actually be somewhat useful to keeping the family alive in spite of not having a backbone for the majority of the picture.

So, of course, my problem rests on the shoulders of the father, Romao. Wagner Moura is a good actor, he's done a fantastic job in a number of films. Even here he manages to bring sympathetic qualities to a mostly unsympathetic character. Romao is stubborn, stupid, and a bit of an egoist. He searches in vain for a job that pays enough to feed his family, wandering from town to town on a fool's errand, not taking any job he sees as below his station. Until he finds that magical job, who makes the money to keep his family together? Well, not him, it's the rest of the family that works hard and keeps them from going hungry. Plus, when they find chances to make some and settle down, he makes them get on their bikes again, in search of his mythical job. He is essentially biking away from his responsibility, instead of confronting it. He's got pride, but is a coward.

He's also the core of the film, which is unfortunate since with such an unlikable character at the center it becomes difficult to get behind the journey. If the family was forced to move on due to circumstance as opposed to bald faced stupidity, it might have worked, but as is, not so much.

There's also the problem of the story of the kid. Lacerda is not as good an actor as Moura, and his quiet rebellion gets crowded out by Moura's dominating screen presence. He's just not a compelling enough personality to get any of the spotlight. A stronger kid in the same role could have contended a bit better, and had the conflict of personalities mean something. As is, they don't, and it's weakens the film as a whole.

Great sound and image do not a great film make, and while those elements work the film as a whole does not. It's a shame really, since I was hoping that Brazil's winning streak would continue. As it happens, they merely have a batting average much better than most countries, and that can't be discounted.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I've probably mentioned it before, but I'm extremely fond of Takashi Miike, mostly because of his unpredictability. Perhaps this is due to his being insanely prolific, but his films aren't afraid to go off in bizarre directions and take unexpected turns. Nothing he does is surprising, even if he's making a vehicle for Japanese girl band Speed and their boy band buddies Da Pump. Andromedia isn't merely a star vehicle though, it's an experiment in fusing genres that nobody has ever thought to fuse.

On one hand it's a heartfelt drama about adolescence and getting a second chance with someone you love. Kenji Harada is Yu, and Hiroko Shimabukuro is Mai. They're young lovers and old friends, coming to terms with their blossoming sexuality and young bliss. Takako Uehara is Mai's friend Rika, who secretly loves Yu and is jealous. Tragically, Mai is run over by a bus, in a scene that I hate to admit I laughed extremely loudly at, and everyone is sad, until she is reincarnated as a magical computer program by her dad.

That leads neatly to the other hand, which is a wacky computer-based espionage comedy in the vein of Hackers and Masterminds, with the same mix of "OMG computers!", hilariously juvenile evil CEOs (Christoper Doyle, also known as a very good cinematographer. Cinematography and acting do not require the same skill set, as soon becomes obvious by his overblown performance), and instantly dated and ridiculous CGI. Mai inhabits a world of Tetris blocks, sheets of quickly scrolling binary and all the "Holy crap, computers!" you can think of post-accident, and is being chased by the evil CEO and Satoshi (Ryo Kataro), her half brother who has a brain tumor and an unclear role in the proceedings.

Also, there's a boy band music video in the middle, because there's a boy band there, that's what they do, why not?

It might seem like touching drama and action/comedy are two genres you would never expect to see in a hybrid. There is a good reason for this, the tonal shifts are utterly bizarre, and you often feel as though there are two movies going on simultaneously. Not helping is the overwhelming late-80sness of the proceedings - the movie was released in 1998, but it feels really 80s in style and substance. I never realized that the one thing Masterminds needed was more high school drama.

I wish it could have just been about the kids coming to terms with their friends' death, but there has to be that pesky explanation for that ghost. On the other hand, I sort of enjoyed the cheesy hackerspoitation aspects, in the same way I enjoy Hackers and Masterminds in spite of their terrible execution. I love movies about computers by people who have only heard of computers from second-hand sources, and this is no exception, the joyously bizarre attempts to visualize what happens in your machine is a joy to behold each and every time.

One element that doesn't work is Hiroko Shimabukuro. Like in most vehicles for people who made their name singing, Shimabukuro is utterly unconvincing as a human being. Now, I actually thought this was an intentional choice on the part of the performer, since she's not a human and supposed to be learning her way around being in a computer, but she seems to be reading off of cue cards. This would be fine if she could read out loud, but it honestly sounds like a fifth grader reading a report to class. As I said, it sort of works in the computer, but there are scenes where she's playing a real person, and she still does it.

Andromedia could have easily been unwatchable, and it is nevertheless very stupid, but I have to say I can't hate it. It's too out there, trying to meld genres that really don't go together very well. It has some good elements, some good imagery, and it's by my favorite hyper-prolific Japanese director. I enjoy watching it, but I hate to say, it's a very stupid movie. But, considering what it was designed for - a vehicle for bands - it's certainly better than Spice World.